Will Canadians ditch the office? Many want to keep working at home after the pandemic

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Will Canadians ditch the office? Many want to keep working at home after the pandemic
WATCH ABOVE: More than three million Canadians have set up work in their living rooms and kitchens, temporarily working from home during the pandemic. But as restrictions ease, companies are contemplating how and if workers will return. Kendra Slugoski reports – Jun 1, 2021

Jay Summach has been working from his Edmonton, Alta., home since March 2020. His company, a digital agency called Yellow Pencil, put out the call for at-home work about a week before the province shut down.

“I’ve been 100 per cent from home since then,” said Summach, an account manager, while sitting at a laptop in his backyard.

“It was great and then it was OK and recently it’s getting a little tough.”

It’s not the working from home that has bothered Summach, but rather the evenings in lockdown and not being able to visit friends.

“The working from home has been wonderful for me. I’m in a house where I’ve got space,” said Summach, who brought home furniture from work to make the transition more comfortable.

“Working from home has not meant working in isolation for me.”

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On May 31, 2021, the lease on his company’s office was up — his bosses had already been looking at the possibility of finding more flexible space. Summach said the pandemic accelerated those conversations and showed that staff could manage their tasks without a designated building.

The company gave up its downtown office space.

Co-working and office-share sites will allow employees to meet when necessary.

“We need to be together at the times we need to be together,” said Summach, “but what we don’t need is for everyone to be in the office all the time.”

That hybrid work model is something many Canadians want as health restrictions ease and more worksites open up.

In a recent Leger poll, in partnership with the Association for Canadian Studies, 82 per cent of Canadians who worked or are still working from home during the pandemic say their experience was positive.

Forty per cent of Canadians also said upon their return, they would prefer a mix of a few days a week at home and a few days at their workplace.

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Nineteen per cent of respondents said they would only want to go to the office when necessary, a day or two a month. Another 19 per cent said they don’t want to return to the job site at all.

Working from home does have its challenges, and 20 per cent of people polled said they want to return to the office or worksite full-time, to their pre-pandemic schedule.

Bill Howatt, who runs Howatt HR Consulting, a firm focused on psychological health and safety, said managers and employees are in “unchartered territory,” but added employers are looking at “maximizing the employee experience.

“Hopefully a manager and employees are talking about their experience now. How you doing? What’s the challenges?”

Howatt said organizations have already learned a lot from COVID-19 — that their employees who work from home can be trusted and will get the work done.

But Howatt said managers will also have to figure out how to balance opportunities like promotions and other advancements if they bring in hybrid work weeks.

Managing a different workflow for every employee will be difficult.

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“Trying to figure out how to get everyone together,” said Howatt, “different needs and sick time and all that. So managers are going to need some extra skills, especially on how to become better digital leaders.

“There’s going to be pros and cons on both sides,” Howatt said. “We will be naïve and silly to think the unintended consequences of having employees at home by themselves will not have some negative effect on people not feeling connected to the culture, getting exposure to informal conversations. So the jury is out.”

For those who do return to the office, Howatt stressed it will take some time, perhaps months, for everyone to feel comfortable again. The commute, the ride in the elevator and vaccine anxiety could be a challenge for many employees.

“When we’re going through a level of uncertainty we’re going to feel a little bit anxious,” he said.

“Give yourself a break, set some realistic expectations. Realize that you’re going to be working different social skills again.”

The Leger poll also revealed that 35 per cent of those surveyed said if ordered back to the worksite, they would start to look for another job that would allow them to work from home.

Summach said about 45 people work for Yellow Pencil and the company is growing. Face-to-face does still matter.

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He noticed it’s sometimes difficult to collaborate and kick-start creativity without physically being around people and reading their body language.

“Watch for the twitch in their cheek when they don’t like something,” Summach said. “Things that don’t come through in a virtual meeting.”

Summach is confident a work-share site with access to a conference room will bring back those connections and believes many companies investigating hybrid work arrangements pre-pandemic will be more open to the idea.

For others, he said, it will likely be a tough sell, especially when trying to navigate tricky issues like how to insure workers and what happens if an employer gets hurt working from home.

Summach said his at-home office has led to a better work-life balance; walking to a local shop to grab lunch and being able to fit in a quick visit with his neighbour.

“Given 16 months already under our belt, already having people working from home and working in hybrid situations, just I think, increased the company’s confidence that, ‘Hey, we can make this work. We don’t have to keep all this space.'”

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